Neighbors, by Michael H. Payne – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

5132WJOdC0L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Neighbors, by Michael H. Payne
Balboa, CA, “Hey, Your Nose is on Fire” Industries, October 2014, trade paperback $10.00 (212 pages), Kindle $3.00.

August Lancer, the narrator, is a young resident of Haven Space, a sanatorium and rehabilitation clinic in Southern California. Dumped there by his father (who sends expense money but never visits), Gus is a loner in a wheelchair, afflicted by a degenerative condition that has paralyzed him from the waist down and made it almost impossible to talk. His only pleasure is watching a TV cartoon series about ponies.

This all changes when Gus is adopted by a hospital therapy black cat named Spooky, who tells him that her name is really El Brujo.

“‘El Brujo?’ I heard myself ask with words that weren’t words. ‘But … you’re female. Aren’t you?’

Another little smile. ‘I’m a bit of a trendsetter.’” (p. 19)

Gus finds himself able since her appearance to talk with the other animals and birds around him. Serena the squirrel. Jefe the crow and his flock. The sparrows who nest just outside the window. Nobody else notices anything unusual, even when El Brujo and Jefe dance together, so Gus worries about it.

“Another thought hit me hard, then, one that I’d tried my absolute damnedest over and over the last bunch of months to stop myself from thinking: what if El Brujo and Serena and the sparrows and crows this morning and the weird little voices I heard in the trees and bushes out in the neighborhood –

What if it was all in my head? What if the shredded chunks of my nervous system weren’t making me understand the animals but were instead making me imagine I could understand them? Was it just a matter of time before rows of dancing chipmunks were telling me to set things on fire and kill people?” (p. 31)

But he doesn’t worry about it for long. Soon he’s taking it in stride, as he promenades about the neighborhood in his wheelchair where the animals provide an alternate to spending all his spare time writing pony fanfiction.

“Down Parkhurst to Hawthorne is an easy enough roll, but Hawthorne between Parkhurst and Demmler has this hill. I doubt anyone not in a wheelchair would even notice, but I always have to stop for a breather at the Ramsays’ house. Fortunately their driveway was empty, so Traveler came walking out instead of charging. ‘Good afternoon, August,’ he said as formally as only a Doberman can. ‘As the master and mistress are away, I hope you’ll forgive me if I dispense with my usual barking and growling.’” (pgs. 41-42)

Neighbors is a sedate and whimsical novel. Gus wheels himself around the neighborhood, introducing the animals to each other. Jefe the crow and Traveler the watchdog become unlikely best friends. Gus puts up with Jefe’s friendly sibling rivalry with his sister Honoria, and works Serina the squirrel into their family. He is charmed when a new family with a puppy moves into the neighborhood.

“The scurrying had gotten El Brujo’s attention by then, and she surged upright, her front paws on the arm of the chair, her tail flicking slowly. ‘That smells like a –‘

Which was when it popped out from under cover into a less bushy part of the yard: a female puppy about the size of a clenched fist, all fly-away dark red fur, huge brown eyes, and flapping pink tongue. ‘Singing!’ she shouted. ‘Dancing! Just! Can’t! Stop!’ And she began spinning in circles.” (p. 53)

Gus is more than charmed when the new Schwarber family turns out to be a father with a daughter his own age, Donna, who is as crippled emotionally as he is physically. Gus’ animal friends help him develop some reluctant social skills so he can help draw Donna out of her shell.

“I nodded, but a commotion at the window drew my attention: a large scruffy crow flapping in from the afternoon to land on the sill, a slightly smaller and sleeker crow grabbing the top of the frame where it stuck out toward the outpatient center. ‘Hey, hey, hey!’ the big crow screeched. ‘What’s the beef here, huh? Honoria said she heard shouting, and –‘

‘Sounded to me,’ the smaller crow interrupted, ‘like there was gonna be a carcass or two coming out this window in a couple minutes.’ She cocked her head. ‘But nobody’s eating nobody!’

Serena huffed out a breath. ‘There will be no eating of anyone today! Today is only for happiness because soon Mr. Augie will begin courting his future mate!’

My lungs turned to stone, but the two crows seemed to explode, Jefe flapping his wings and shouting, ‘About damn time! You been miserable that way long as I’ve known you!’

Honoria swooped in over her brother’s head and skittered to a stop beside El Brujo, her talons shredding my sleeping bag worse than Serena ever could. ‘This for true, gata?’

‘Apparently so.’ El Brujo flicked her whiskersat Serena. ‘I was advocating a ‘slow but steady’ approach to counteract August’s ‘frozen and unmoving’ method, but when Miss Serena involved herself –‘

‘Yes!’ Serena chittered, doing a little dance on the bedpost. ‘I am proactive by nature!’” (pgs. 91-92)

Payne puts real personality into the raucous crows, dignified cat, hyperactive squirrel, exuberant puppy, and several others, as well as into the humans.

But the reader will recognize that, in the background, there are threats of Gus’ father losing Lancer Aeronautics and no longer being able to afford to keep Gus at Haven Space; of arrogant Mrs. Ford’s campaign to drive the sanatorium with its property-value-lowering cripples and retards out of the neighborhood; and of the animals such as Snowbird the cat and Otho the coyote who don’t believe that animals and humans should mix socially – and are ready to kill the ‘traitors’.

Neighbors (cover by Tom Payne) is never dramatic, but it is quietly charming. It’s an excellent talking-animal fantasy for those who aren’t yet ready for a furry-genre novel.

Fred Patten